For many people around the country, Memorial Day weekend signifies the beginning of summer. For me, I’m just happy if it’s warm. Despite pockets of sunshine and warmth in March and April, spring in New England is usually cold, dreary, wet and windy. But this weekend was GLORIOUS.
To celebrate the warmer temperatures we made bun ca nuong for dinner tonight. As always, there are many variations to this dish–my aunt Kim would actually roast an entire catfish in the oven and then serve it with rice paper, herbs, lettuce, cuke, bean sprouts, rice noodles and nuoc cham. Everyone would make their own rolls and eat as they go. Good fun and good food. But if your rolling skills are far from perfect, or if you just prefer the ease of a meal-in-a-bowl, then this version is for you.
Many elements of this meal are similar to my lemongrass beef recipe: nuoc cham, scallion oil, fried shallots, rice noodles, and herb salad. Essentially, the only change is the fish instead of the beef. But for the sake of simplicity, I will repost the similar parts so the recipe will be all in one place.
2 lbs. catfish fillets (I substituted tilapia this time because catfish was not available)
4 scallions coarsely chopped
1/2 cup canola oil
1/4 cup light soy sauce (a couple of tablespoons less if your soy sauce is particularly salty)
4 Tablespoons honey
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 16 oz. package rice vermicelli (look for the word “Bun” on the package)
Lettuce and herbs:
8-10 leaves romaine lettuce, sliced thin
1 cup fresh mint leaves, rinsed and dried (Thai basil would also work)
1 1/2 cups cucumbers, julienned
1 cup bean sprout, rinsed and dried
3 scallions, thinly sliced
a couple pinches of salt
4 tablespoons neutral oil, like canola or sunflower
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
one Thai bird chili, minced or sliced if you don’t want too much spiciness
5 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
1 cup water
1/2 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup fried shallots
Fish: In a small bowl, combine the scallions, oil, soy sauce, honey and black pepper. Stir to combine. (Tip: I often use a mini-prep Cuisinart to chop the onions. Don’t over chop them as they’ll just get slimy. See photo.) Place fish fillets in a large glass baking dish (or similar) and coat thoroughly with marinade. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours. Light grill and when coals are ready, grill fillets for 4-5 minutes per side over indirect heat. Grilling fish fillets can be tricky as they have a tendency to fall apart. We use a grilling basket like this one, which holds the fillets more tightly and prevents them from falling apart when flipping. (If you are grill-challenged, try broiling on high for 4-5 minutes per side, flipping once. Watch the fillets carefully as the honey in the marinade will make them burn easily.) Transfer grilled fillets to a platter.
Noodles: Make the noodles while the fish marinates. Place 3-4 quarts of water in a pot (enough to completely cover the noodles, use less if you are making less noodles) and bring to a vigorous boil. Add dried noodle pieces and make sure they are entirely submerged. Bring pot back to a boil and then immediately remove from heat and cover pot. After five minutes, drain noodles and rinse thoroughly under cold water, shaking them to remove excess liquid. Noodles should be room temperature, though not cold, for serving.
Scallion oil: Heat oil in a small pan until very hot. You can test the oil by dropping in a slice of scallion, if there is sizzling, then you’re good to go. Place scallions in a ramekin or other heat-resistant dish, add a pinch or two of kosher salt and pour hot oil over. Allow mixture to sit for at least 5 minutes for the flavors to mesh.
Nuoc cham: Every Vietnamese family has a jar of this sauce in their home and every one makes it a little bit different. Some like it bit sweeter, spicier, saltier or more tart. Use this recipe as a base and tweak to suit your own taste. To avoid too much spiciness, slice the pepper into 2-3 chunks instead of mincing. Combine minced garlic, chili peppers, lime juice, sugar, water and fish sauce in a small bowl. Stir to make sure sugar dissolves completely. Keeps in fridge for 10 days.
Fried shallots: I buy these ready-made at a Chinese supermarket but you can make your own by thinly slicing shallots and then frying them in oil until crisp. They are also excellent on bagels with cream cheese!
Assembly: Place a small handful of lettuce/cuke/bean sprouts/herbs in a bowl, then place roughly 1 to 1 1 1/2 cups noodles on top. Add fish fillet(s) atop noodles, garnish with scallion oil, fried shallots, and a couple spoonfuls of nuoc cham. Makes 4-6 servings.